|Directed by:||Wolfgang Lesowsky||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||2001||Running Time:||45 mins.|
|Language:||English, German & French (subtitled)||Genre:||Documentary|
|More Info:||About Tunisian Jews||Category:||World Jewry|
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About the Film:
They call their community “miraculous” – an isolated island where Jewish identity is forged by a shared sense of equality, rather than one of persecution. An engaging look at this 2,500-year-old Jewish community, La Ghriba reveals the distinctions that have made the Tunisian island of Jerba so unique.
“There is no characteristic that identifies me as a Jew, unless I choose to adopt one — I am simply a Tunisian Jew,” says one Jewish resident of Jerba, adding, “my religious convictions lead me to the synagogue, but I am 100% Tunisian — I have a Tunisian passport and run my business like any other Tunisian; I don’t know how things are in other countries, I only know that I am proud to be Tunisian.”
The very different Jewish attitude in Jerba dates back to antiquity. Distinct from other areas where Muslims and Jews lived side-by-side, generations of legal equality with Arabs in Jerba have helped subdue the bouts of violence found within similar community mixtures elsewhere in the Middle East. As one local Muslim declares dismissively, “other people’s problems don’t interest us — they might affect others, but nobody here cares.”
According to local tradition, the first Jews settled on Jerba in the wake of the first Temple’s destruction in Jerusalem in 566 BCE. A community with true foundations in the Jewish life of the ancients, island tradition holds that its synagogue -– known as La Ghriba (“the miraculous”) — is built with a stone from the ruins of the First Temple, and houses the oldest known Sefer Torah in its sanctuary.
Waves of Jewish immigrants from around the Mediterranean flocked to it as a haven from persecution in the millennia that followed the original settlement. Upon arrival, they were greeted with a Jewish community that existed in surprising harmony with its local Muslim Berber neighbors.
It is a community so successful at integrating with local cultures, while simultaneously maintaining its own identity, that other priorities of the Jewish community are discarded –- even Israel.
“Politically, we do not need Israel,” says Tunisia’s head rabbi, noting that legal and religious parity has given the local Jewish community a self-determining outlook. Without the religious conflict or persecution found in so many other Diasporic communities, Jerba’s Jews can have a public identity that is fully Tunisian, “and in religious terms we have everything we need to practice our faith.”
Despite their valued status as fully Tunisian, Jerba’s Jews maintain a strong pride in their Judaism, and they revel in showing it. The film captures a yearly festival held just outside La Ghriba, commemorating two famous rabbis. The occasion is one of music and dancing, and helps continue the tradition of drawing Jews from around the world to Jerba –- if only for a visit. Such visitors have the reputation of leaving the island with a future husband or wife in tow.
And yet, the Jewish community is so utterly suffused with its Tunisian culture, that it is outwardly almost indistinguishable. Repeated shots of the wide variety of Jerba’s residents reveal just how much both Jew and non-Jew in this millennia-old community share similarities in both physical appearance and a shared French language.
But they retain individualizing brands of orthodoxy when it comes to their respective religions. Even though both communities share a love for couscous, vegetable dumplings and potato soup, because many of Jerba’s Jews keep strictly kosher, they rarely share meals with Muslim neighbors.
Jerba’s uniqueness reinforces its status as an island, both in a literal and figurative sense. La Ghriba evokes a form of Jewish identity where openness and interaction are indispensable values – a notion of Jewishness that could only be forged in this most special of places.